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Merchants are squirming

By Associated Press,
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 30, 2003

HONG KONG - Eating a lunch of slivered snake meat, Terry Yu said Thursday that he enjoys the flavor and he's not scared of SARS.

"It smells good," said Yu, a marketing manager who relishes snake year round, though most locals prefer it in the cooler weather that begins around October.

But Hong Kong's snake dealers are worried that a mainland Chinese crackdown on wildlife markets full of serpents and other exotic species, some potentially carrying the SARS virus, could doom their industry by cutting off the supply.

The Chinese view snake as a "winter warming food," and some say eating snake also has aphrodisiac or medicinal benefits.

Nearly all the snakes come from the southern mainland province of Guangdong, where SARS is believed to have originated in November.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome has now sickened more than 8,200 people worldwide and killed about 750, with the biggest numbers in mainland China.

After researchers found the SARS virus in three types of game animals - civet cats, raccoon dogs and badgers - mainland Chinese officials have been raiding markets and seizing game animals, including snakes. Chinese researchers believe the disease might also be carried by snakes and bats.

Any ban on China's snake trade could spell disaster for Hong Kong's 70-odd snake shops, merchant Ho Cheuk-hing said.

Worried Hong Kong snake dealers might be lucky the crackdown on wildlife markets came when it did, as summer is a traditionally slow time. Most snake dealers have sold their yearly supply, and some have closed for the season.

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